This week we are launching our third international call for ideas for The Playable City Award, inviting creatives from around the world to propose distinctive ideas that put people and play at the heart of the Future City. How brilliant then, that our first ever winner continues to thrive in three very different (and yet somehow connected) cities:
From the bats that flock out of Congress Avenue Bridge, to the street musicians that occupy Sixth Street, Austin Texas is weird. Delightfully and knowingly so - "Keep Austin Weird" is the slogan that appears on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and hats in every local store and was even adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote is local trade.
Bristol, UK is a bit weird too. We are 'unorthodox' (as one city branding agency called us). We have the People's Republic of Stoke's Croft. We are the birth place of Sustrans, Banksy and many others. In the 1970s they discovered we had a hum.
The fondness I feel for Austin has been honed over many visits for SXSW - a huge tech, music film Festival that takes over the city every March: the tech industry, the universities, the local traders and the sense of informality all feel very familiar. They feel very much like Bristol. So I am extremely delighted that Austin was the first city to re-commission Hello Lamp Post, a project by Pan Studio, Gyorgyi Galik and Tom Armitage, which won Watershed's first Playable City Award in 2013.
Hello Lamp Post invites people to attempt a whole new way of communicating, through lamp posts, post boxes and other familiar street furniture, by texting the unique codes found on each object. With Hello Lamp Post, these codes became secret passwords that allowed you to 'wake up' a sleeping object and discover what it had to say. Would it be pleased to see you? Irritated at having been left in the rain? Or would it tell you a secret? Over eight weeks, 25,674 messages were exchanged between the people of Bristol and everyday pieces of street furniture.
When we commissioned Hello Lamp Post, no one realised the project would create a kind of city analytics platform - able to gauge the mood of a city, to probe particular issues, to understand a bit about mobility and movement. The project has already received nearly 8,000 Texan messages about everything from the food, to the weather, to politics. They also include, of course, the weird and wonderful:
Q: Tell me about a strange habit you have.
A: I like to dress up as a bear and scare hitch hikers.
Q: What's the weirdest thing you're aware of right now?
A: Men riding bikes wearing only thongs.
I am over in Japan this week, another home of the weird and wonderful, to launch a partnership with British Council around Playable City Tokyo. Ben Barker from PAN is also here, participating in British Council's ELEVATE programme and installing Hello Lamp Post as part of the Innovation is GREAT exhibition that is being staged for HRH The Duke of Cambridge's visit to Japan. British Council Japan were a partner in our first Playable City workshop, and it's very exciting to be launching Playable City here.
A city is not one thing - Cities around the world have very different attitudes to working, travelling, living and playing. However, all over the world governments and tech companies ARE investing in smart systems for cities, using communication networks and sensors to join up services, collect data and make efficiencies. The Playable City Award asks us to imagine how we might use these same technologies to make our cities more liveable, hopeful and collaborative. In order to fully explore the possibilities, it is vital we listen and share these questions with people across the world.
Linking Bristol, Austin and Tokyo through the medium of talking street furniture was not a project I would have pre-empted, but good ideas travel, and the simple weirdness of Hello Lamp Post is an easy sell.
Hello Lamp Post is running in Austin from 12 February until 27 April, in celebration of Austin Art in Public Places program's 30th anniversary year.
The third Playable City Award is now open for new ideas.